This time in 2021, Hearts were still in the cinch Championship and while the title and promotion back to the top flight had been confirmed, there was still an air of discontent around Tynecastle.
That was, in the main, down to the club’s extraordinary exit from the Scottish Cup at the hands of part-time Brora Rangers, but performances and the style of football under Robbie Neilson had not curried favor with sections of the support too.
Some even called for the manager’s head, but those that hold power in Gorgie did not flinch. They stuck by their man – and have been handsomely rewarded.
Hearts have secured third place in this season’s cinch Premiership and are in the final of Scottish Cup next month against Rangers by virtue of defeating Edinburgh rivals Hibs in Saturday’s semi-final. That result ensured European group football for 2022/23, be it in the Europa League or the Conference League, guaranteeing upwards of £3million in prize money and television revenue.
These are game-changing amounts of cash for Hearts, who can steal a march on traditional league rivals Hibs, Aberdeen and Dundee United in terms of the caliber of player they can attract. Neilson knows the importance of what the club has achieved but has promised a gradual approach to recruitment rather than throwing money erratically at the squad.
“We want to try and challenge at the top end of the table,” said Neilson. “Rangers and Celtic have a budget which is ten times that of ours. We know it will be a gradual build up and it won’t be done in one window.
“If we add a bit to the budget we can get two, three or four players who are a level above and that takes us consistently into Europe.
“We aren’t going to chuck every single penny at it, we will take our time.
“We are beginning to get the right players in. We have a way we want to play and we have guys behind us who can get the right people in.
“We will have good windows and not so good ones but it’s about trying to limit them.
“Everyone starts at zero next season so we have to prepare and recruit properly in the summer.
“Then it’s about winning games which is easier said than done.
“We have to do things properly and gradually and hopefully take the club as far as we can.”
Neilson knows that the carrot of European football will lure in prospective signings. “I think being in Europe will help us attract players,” he continued. “A lot of it comes down to finances but it also comes down to when you are talking to them you tell them they will have European football until Christmas at least.
“We have got to the Scottish Cup final and we want to do it again next season and winning trophies appeals to players.
“We have a great stadium, training ground and great city to live in with a big fanbase so it ticks loads of boxes, so it is now about finding the right players.”
Given the fan unrest last season, it was far from a certainty that Neilson would survive the Brora debacle and the turbulence that followed. But Neilson is long enough in the tooth to know that football can change so quickly and that pressure is put on managers after such results. Crucially, I have retained the faith of then owner Ann Budge, chief executive Andrew McKinlay and director of football Joe Savage.
“That’s football at a big club and football nowadays,” Neilson said as he recalled that defeat in the Highlands.
“If you lose a game it is the end of the world but if you win you are the best thing since sliced bread.
“This is an unbelievable club and very few anywhere that have real stability like we do.
“We have a board and directors that are strong and that see the long term plan rather than winning and losing weekly.
“We have a vision and we know where we want to get to.
“There will be ups and downs along the way and we know that.
“Last season we were a long way ahead before losing a few games but the main objective was to get out of the Championship and we did that.
“This season it was about finishing in the top six and we met that.
“We have exceeded that and next year it will be, can we progress again?
“It will be difficult to do that but that will be the aim.”
Neilson saved the final word for Budge, who passed over ownership of the club earlier this campaign to the Foundation of Hearts but still remains chairwoman. Her role in saving the Edinburgh outfit from liquidation will never be forgotten, putting up her own money to make sure Hearts were not destroyed by the Vladimir Romanov era. Hearts’ last Scottish Cup triumph came ten years ago under the Russian-Lithuanian business and Neilson would like to give the current regime a fitting reward for all their dedication.
“I’m delighted for Ann as she saved the club,” added Neilson.
“The club was in administration and nearly gone but she build us back up.
“We had some issues on the park, we got relegated and we came back up, now we can stay and get the club cemented in the top end of the Premiership.
“It would be great to win the Scottish Cup for Ann but for everyone connected with Hearts.
“It’s been a long journey. We have nearly been there a few times but hopefully this time we can get over the line.”
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